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Zombie Science: Jonathan Wells on Overselling Darwin’s Tree of Life

There’s no denying the sly brilliance of the evolutionary Tree of Life, memorialized in Darwin’s Origin by the only illustration in that famous book. In its own origin, of course, the Tree of Life is a sacred and mysterious image from the Book of Genesis. Evolutionary theory takes it and twists into the symbol of an idea, universal common ancestry, that collides heads on with the simplest reading of the Genesis creation account. Take that, creationists!

All of life may be related as Darwin hypothesized, or it may not. Certainly, though, the science behind the evolutionary tree of life has been vastly oversold. Author of Zombie Science: More Icons of Evolution, biologist Jonathan Wells explains in a new video conversation why that is so.

With his own sly humor, Dr. Wells points out some scientific problems with regarding Darwin’s Tree as unassailable fact. There can be only one “true tree,” yet fossil, molecular, and other data fail to resolve into any such thing. At the time of the publication of Dr. Wells’s 2000 book, Icons of Evolution, many scientists still hoped that this situation would resolve itself. It hasn’t. Seventeen years later, inferences from available data are even more confusing. There is still no realistic prospect of a “true tree” emerging.

Meanwhile, increasing awareness of orphan genes, genes without parallels from one taxon to another, collide head on with evolutionary expectations. Researchers proposing their own “trees” are compelled to cherry-pick, simply ignoring the inconvenient yet widespread orphans.

It looks more and more like the true tree is an illusion. “The reason we get a tree,” in the first place, says Dr. Wells, “is only because we assume at the outset that it’s there.” Meanwhile, year after year, Darwin’s apologists persuade the public, including school kids, that all is well and scientists are homing in on the one and only tree. This is zombie science in its purest, most staggering, shuffling form.